Last year, I chose 22nd November – my birthday – as the deadline to quit smoking for good. But like all the other dates I had set before, that day came and went, with me still sucking my way through 20 Benson & Hedges a week, minimum. As the end of the year approached, I felt increasingly desperate and hopeless. I started to think that I would be a smoker forever, that quitting was beyond me, that I was too dumb and weak-willed ever to succeed. I felt sad about it, so I did what I always do when I feel sad (or happy, excited, anxious or bored): I went outside and had a fag.
A day or two later I opened a new email and started to read. It began: "Hypnotherapist, life coach and occupational psychologist Jivan Dempsey is focused on helping her clients to lead healthier and happier lives. Whether you are experiencing stress and anxiety, performance issues, problems with relaxation or sleeping, depression, phobias, self-confidence, weight loss or breaking habits (including addictions such as smoking)…"
I stopped reading and got in touch to make an appointment.
On a cold evening the following week I arrived at Jivan's Harley Street address and waited while three young women (one wearing a suit, the other two in expensive workout gear) were buzzed into the building ahead of me for their Botox, orthodontics, life coaching and whatever else is on offer in the labyrinthine corridors within.
I was led to a small subterranean office and told to sit in an ageing leather chair. It was here my first hope was crushed. "Hypnotherapy is not a quick fix," Jivan explained. "There's no 'click your fingers' magic cure, it involves work, and some of it can be quite unpleasant."
She began by asking me a long list of questions. When did I start smoking, and why? Answer: I was dumb and impressionable.
It’s the truth. In my 20s I hated smoking and would nag friends about quitting but after the smoking ban was introduced in Ireland in 2004, more and more of my friends started to disappear outside for ciggies. Sometimes I’d tag along. After a while they stopped bothering with the inside of the pub at all, choosing to spend the whole night outside – despite the dismal Irish weather – drinking in a cloud of smoke as they chained one after another. Eventually, I accepted the occasional cigarette I was offered. Two years later I was buying my own; five years on, I was the person everyone else bummed cigarettes from. "So you could say the smoking ban made me start smoking," I conclude, looking at Jivan. She’s not buying it.
Some of the questioning in our first session makes me feel defensive. "How many a day? What brand? How much do I spend a week? When do I have my first smoke of the day?" Then comes the all-important question: "On a scale of one to five," she asks, "how much do you want to give up?"
I know I should say five but after humming and hawing for 30 seconds, I say "four". Every non-smoker reading this will probably think the same thing: Why the hell are you there if you don’t 100% want to give up? But that’s just the thing, I DO want to quit. I just can’t in all honesty say five when I worry that without cigarettes, life will never be the same – how will I enjoy nights out, parties, weekends, birthdays or holidays without them?
'Over the course of your lifetime as a smoker you have built up a number of positive associations with cigarettes,' she says. 'The purpose of our sessions is to break them.'
Jivan warns me that each session will be tougher than the last because she will use aversion therapy to help me stop. "Over the course of your lifetime as a smoker you have built up a number of positive associations with cigarettes," she says. "The purpose of our sessions is to break them." Then she tells me to sit back, relax and close my eyes.
The hypnotherapy itself is nothing as wacky as it sounds. In the audio recording I made of our session (I highly recommend everyone does this), Jivan talks to me in a soft, steady voice. She tells me I’m already a non-smoker 95% of the time and helps me visualise myself as a non-smoker 100% of the time. She tells me I can still have fun with my friends without smoking, that I won't be missing out on anything; in fact, she says, it's the opposite. Quitting will set me free. After a while she raises her voice gradually and talks more rapidly and tells me to open my eyes. I feel a little spaced out when she hits me with my homework. Here are my options: If I smoke after our session, I must donate £20 to charity for every single cigarette. Ouch. Or I can put the ash from every cigarette I smoke in a glass of water and drink it. Vom. Or for every one cigarette I smoke, I have to smoke 10 more consecutively afterwards. Hmmmm….
Real talk: I last two days then smoke a whole pack on a work night out, and I do not donate £400 to charity, drink a pint of ash-infused water or smoke 200 more cigs consecutively. Two weeks later I go back to Jivan with my tail between my legs and we try more hypnotherapy visualisation techniques. I leave with a renewed belief that I can do this; later that night I smoke alone on my balcony.
It’s okay if you are getting fed up of me now, I’m fed up of myself.
It’s been a while since my last hypnotherapy session and I will be very frank here because one thing smokers are great at is lying (to themselves and others). I smoked right up to the end of 2018. Then one morning this month I woke up and rededicated myself to becoming a committed non-smoker. I downloaded the NHS Smokefree app, threw out my 500-strong lighter collection and have been listening to that recording of my first session with Jivan every day. I am now on day seven and while it’s way too early to call that success, I can tell you it's the longest I've gone without smoking in years. Something has changed. This time feels different, because I want it. I want it more than I want Michael B. Jordan to fall in love with me and Billy Ocean to sing at our wedding. I want it so much that I know if Jivan asked me on a scale of one to five how much I wanted to give up smoking, I could answer definitively, with no hesitation: five.
One session with Jivan Dempsey costs around £125 for 1.5 hours, depending on the client’s needs. She recommends four sessions for any hardcore smoker who wants to quit.